We haven’t been to Toynbee Hall since the beloved Arts Café, scene of many a top pop happening, was closed. So it’s weird to find that our former groovy gig place is now merely the bar in which us Gruff Rhys ‘aficionados’ are expected to gather as we await the opening of the doors that lead into Toynbee Studios and tonight’s show. It’s even more of a surprise to find that beyond those doors there’s this really nice little theatre, with red velvet chairs and a big stage and everything. Was this hidden gem lurking back here all those times we crammed ourselves into the Arts Café defying health and safety and the fire officer?
We settle in our seats for the support band H. Hawkline, who include alongside Mr H himself, Sweet Baboo on bass. Due to not setting out for the gig until quite late they have opted not to bring a keyboard with them, so we are treated to a scuffed and garagey set. The whole caboodle is endearingly, eccentricly groovy, but the stand out song is ‘Hells Bells’ with its Jonathan Richman vocals, Velvets at their crunchy garage-iest chug, deeply fuzzy guitar AND a false ending.
Burbling away half to himself, clad in a ‘Christmas jumper’ that only he could make alluring, Gruff Rhys’ solo show essentially involves watching a loveable eccentric pottering about in his shed. Spread before him is a table full of gizmos to be employed in piecing together his fine array of songs.
Before he gets to play with his toys, we get an utterly sweet-hearted set played on acoustic guitar. This consists of tracks from first album ‘Yr Atal Genhedlaeth' and songs from the forthcoming ‘Hotel Shampoo’ and is kicked off with the introduction “This song accompanied the genocide scene in a film I was involved with.” There is plenty of this skew-whiff dead-panning throughout the evening. As anyone who’s managed to decipher his on-stage announcements with Super Furries will attest, Rhys is not just a brilliantly creative musician and a pretty face, he’s a bone-dry wit as well.
Amongst the new tracks we get; ‘the first song I’ve written with the word ‘
The first half of the set over, Rhys settles down at the table amongst the bird song albums, children’s percussion instruments, LED drumsticks, decks, metronome and other unidentified noise-making implements to introduce us to his ‘chat show’ entitled ‘Resist Phoney Encores’. The first guest (accompanied by his own ‘theme song’ as Rhys slaps a seven inch onto a turntable), is Sweet Baboo singing ‘Twelve Carrots of Love’ in his inimitable cracked country way.
Next guest, introduced with a spot of Krautrock as her theme tune, is Lisa Jen. She ices frosty clear vocals over “Lonesome Words”, managing to make a simple song with acoustic guitar, metronome and Rhys’ singing into something ethereally beautiful. Jen stays to add her voice to a selection of tunes from Candylion; a brief clap-along assault on 'Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru' a toe-tapping ‘Court Of King Arthur’. The latter, “A song about archaeology, even though I know nothing about it”, gets a reprise when a Scottish voice pipes up from the audience, “Can you play that one again? I was in the toilet”. Gruff obliges with ‘the best bit’ from the middle section of the song and the Scottish bloke is appeased, “Thanks!”
Rhys makes an attempt at a new song, ‘If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)’ which he forgot to play during the first half. Jen is encouraged to beat time on a tambourine, but reveals she has never ‘played drums’ apart from when a friend taught her to play the opening to a Faith No More song (she demonstrates this with a bit of air drumming). The song doesn’t get far before Rhys falters, Jen asks, ‘Am I putting you off?’ and the song is abandoned. Happily it makes an appearance later in the encore and is well worth the wait, a lilting, bittersweet waltz.
‘Cycle Of Violence’ ends with Rhys sampling and looping his own voice, singing harmonies with himself so that the song floats on a layer of vocal drones. These are topped off with a trademark Rhys scream – also sampled into the mix but its inclusion kept mercifully brief – the guy can sing sweetly, but he sure can holler too.
The room frequently fills with laughter at Rhys’ gnomic comments, there’s obviously a lot of affection for him and his music (with a few sprinklings of lust). This is the happiest, friendliest gig I’ve been to for a long time. And I’ve been to Indietracks.
The final encore sees Rhys joined by all his guests to play Kevin Ayres’ nursery-rhyme-like 'Religious Experience (Singing a Song in the Morning)', its refrain pretty much sums up our evening, “Don’t even know what I’m singing about, but it makes me feel I feel alright.”